Social Liberalism, Economic Conservativism, and Political Parties

Ezra Klein (here and here) and Matthew Yglesias are going back and forth discussing ideology and political parties, raising the question of whether the situation in the United States is typical of other places and times. Is it inevitable that one party would be conservative on social and economic issues while the other party would be liberal on both? Matthew argues that this is the trend internationally, while European blogger Michael P.F. van der Galiën provides evidence that perhaps this is not always the case. While not proving that this is universal, George Lakoff has provided a possible explanation for the association of economic and social issues in his division between the strict father and nurturing parent views.

Ezra and Matthew are largely looking at the possibility of a political party being socially conservative and liberal on economic matters–which could be the worst of all possible worlds as far as I’m concerned assuming they are using liberal in a big-government or populist manner. Kevin Drum rejects the opposite view finding that libertarianism “has never attracted a huge following.”

In coming to this conclusion, Kevin is confusing the most radical viewpoint for all possible viewpoints which might be characterized by being socially liberal and economically conservative. Extreme libertarianism will find a small following, but so would the other extreme of total government control over both economic and social issues.

The problem with extreme libertarianism comes from the placement of ideology over reality. Libertarian publications and think tanks produce a tremendous amount of work analyzing every possible problem, and every time they find that the free market will provide a better solution than government. Amazing how that works! In contrast, while I might prefer avoiding government where possible, and place the burden of proof on those who seek increased government activity, I, and presumably many others who are socially liberal and more economically conservative, would concede the need for government action in some areas rejected by hard core libertarians.

Talk of economic conservativism can also be confusing as this term is used in many ways. Among those who have described themselves as socially liberal and economically conservative are Jimmy Carter, Paul Tsongas, John Kerry and Howard Dean, while others who use this label are more conservative economically than these Democrats. Their economic conservativism is hardly the same as that advocated by current Republicans. We simply do not have good labels for the variety of political views which exist. In terms of purely economics, Republican views would be much better described as fascist than capitalist, but there are far too many negative associations with fascism for it to make a useful descriptive term in political discussion. This does, however, raise the point that many conservative pundits have no qualms about calling most Democrats socialists, regardless of the fact that Republicans are far closer to fascism as opposed to capitalism than many Democrats are to socialism.

I also wonder to what degree the limited combinations of views coming from the two American political parties is responsible for the low turn out in elections and poor approval ratings for both in many polls. This may also be driving the interest in third parties, as many wonder if a Ross Perot without the personal quirks would be preferable to the choices offered by the major parties. Shamanic recently addressed this at Newshoggers arguing that most of the platform of a hypothetical third party, including fiscal conservativism, is basically a Democratic platform.

It is actually not clear what the Democrats will represent as they move from the opposition party to governing party, and even less clear as to how they are perceived. There is still the inertia of the old New Deal coalition and special interest groups influencing the Democratic Party. There’s been a tremendous realignment as social issues, as well as views on the Iraq war, have replaced economic issues as the major differences between the parties. If the Democrats are seen primarily as the party of the poor and the welfare state which is hostile to business interests they risk returning to minority status, and a third party could be victorious if the Republicans remain controlled by those on the extreme right.

If Democrats are to become a majority party they will need to recognize the changing economic realities of an affluent society, and develop a platform which is inviting to the “Starbucks Republicans” and “South Park Republicans” who now reject the social conservativism of the Republicans. This tendency is seen more among bloggers, making Shamanic’s arguments more understandable even if others do not perceive the Democratic Party as she does. It remains to be seen whether the net roots will have a lasting effect on the Democratic Party, or if older interest groups will retain control.

It was much easier for Democrats to appear united when in the minority and in agreement in opposing Republican policies. Until recently, many current Democrats were actually former independents and moderate Republicans who can no longer support the extremism of the Republican leadership. Assuming predictions are correct that the Democrats will be the governing party as of 2008, there may be more division as to which course to take. We may see a return to the traditional conservative versus liberal divisions, or we may see a continuation of the realignment which has been occurring during the Bush years demonstrating to Ezra and Matthew that the old political divisions are not engraved in stone.

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  1. 1
    shamanic says:

    Hey Ron, thanks for your treatment of this (and the link). I would quibble with this point: “This tendency is seen more among bloggers, making Shamanic’s arguments more understandable even if others do not perceive the Democratic Party as [s]he does.”

    I’m 31, and my experience of Democrats in my peer group is that all of us are in the “leave us alone” coalition, while older Dems tend to be much more focused on big government initiatives. I guess universal health care is one area where we all agree on the goal, but I imagine that the actual details of a plan that would appeal to a 20- or 30-something might seem misguided to a 50-something Democrat.

    So I guess my sense is that social liberalism and fiscal conservatism as a Democratic value isn’t so much a blog-driven phenomenon as one of age and demographics. I was coming of political age during the 1994 Republican Revolution, and my generation has been broadly shaped by the anti-government messages of the Reagan and Gingrich years.

    We don’t instinctively trust government solutions, but we instinctively distrust the alternative–which is corporate control in a free market run amok.

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    “I’m 31, and my experience of Democrats in my peer group is that all of us are in the “leave us alone” coalition, while older Dems tend to be much more focused on big government initiatives.”

    There is definately this trend among the Democrats, and it isn’t limited to the young. This is also seen more in the blogs than in the party organization, but certainly isn’t limited to the blogs. One difference is that many on the blogs have less times to the old special interests and traditional Democratic constituencies.

    The problem is that not everybody realizes this change is occuring. That’s what I mean by “If others do not perceive the Democratic Party…” One reason why many seek a third party is that, regardless of where the party is headed, many still see the big government, interest group side of the Democratic Party. Therefore they do not realize that the hypothetical third party agenda may represent the Democrats.

    Another problem is that the Democratic Party itself is putting out mixed signals. In 2004 two of the leading candidates for the nomination were John Kerry and Howerd Dean, who are more socially liberal and economically conservative. However at present Hillary Clinton and John Edwards don’t fit this mode (with Obama being harder to peg at this point).

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